During the many years of my early twenties that I spent single, I often played the role of third wheel. Mostly, in Washington, I did this with my friends A and J.
A and I had become close friends at work: most of my memories from that time of personal drama/heartbreak are punctuated with a vision of running up some set of stairs to A’s desk and anxiously reading the look on her face as she slid her black headphones down to her neck. (Was she crashing on deadline or did she have a moment to hear my, always epic, saga?).
And then J moved into her group house in Columbia Heights, and a few weeks later we all hosted a dinner party, and I spent that night in bed with another housemate, to whom I talked about one time after that, while A and J spent the night together and remained inseparable for about the next four years.
The phrase “third wheel” has a negative connotation, but I don’t mean one in this case: I loved spending time with the two of them as a couple. I’d still run up to A’s desk at work, but then I’d also find solace in their kitchen, or backyard, where the two of them would ply me with homemade chicken and beer, smother me with joint bear hugs, and assure me that whatever guy really wasn’t half as awesome as me to begin with.
In other words: I confided in both of them, regularly, about my sex life. And I laugh now about how I responded when they tried to do the same.
“Eewwww!” I’d grimace, throwing my hands to my ears, whenever J would make some suggestive comment indicating that he and A actually slept together.
“How come you can talk to us about sex but we can’t talk to you?” he’d plead, half-joking.
“I don’t know, it’s just the way it is! You’re a couple, you don’t get to talk about sex! You’re like my parents!”
The truth is that neither of them talked to me very much about their relationship at all.
At least not until one afternoon, in the living room of the house they’d jointly bought a month earlier, when–with J out of town for the weekend–A, sobbing, poured out all of the reasons she hadn’t let herself admit, to herself or anyone else, that would cause her to break up with him soon after.
It’s hard to talk about anything that you’re in: it’s why we’re not supposed to write about things until we’ve got some distance–you can’t possibly understand something you’re so close to.
And it’s also scary to admit, to those around you and thereby to yourself, that things might not be perfect.
But things being less than perfect doesn’t mean they’re doomed.
It’s probably a good thing that A and J aren’t together now, and I don’t know whether, if A had spoken up about the things that bothered her earlier on, she could’ve saved the relationship.
But I do wonder if there’s something dangerous about all of our reluctance to recognize or acknowledge problems in our relationships. The stakes are higher, sure, but that just means there’s that much more reason to try and, honestly, figure things out. Obviously, the most important way to do that is with each other–but as invaluable as the comfort and wisdom of close friends are when we’re single, we shouldn’t discard that when we get attached.
A is now somewhere in Asia, doing the trip she’s wanted to do for years and checking email sporadically. But I’m lucky to have other girlfriends now who are a set of stairs, or a few blocks, or a phone call away. And so far there hasn’t been much to talk about–the good stuff isn’t all that interesting. But if and when there is, I hope I won’t hesitate to say so.